The War Between the Sexes

Yesterday, Basic Books released a new book by Kay S. Hymowitz entitled Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys. A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal, Hymowitz is the author of an earlier book, Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age, which I touched on in a post on Sunday.

As a student of trends, Hymowitz is always worth reading, and the argument that she advances in her latest book is already causing intense discussion. The weekend before last, she published a teaser in The Wall Street Journal entitled Where Have All the Good Men Gone? The last time I checked 105,594 readers had signaled that they liked the piece, and there are indications that in some quarters it has also attracted considerable ire.

It is easy to see why. In this country today, there is no subject more apt to provide an occasion for the unleashing of fury than a frank discussion of relations between men and women. Neither sex is satisfied. Both are angry. And much of what is posted on the internet by men about women and by women about men is, frankly, vile.

The focus of Hymowitz’ article and no doubt of the book from which it was excerpted (which I have not yet seen) is what she called “pre-adulthood,” by which she means the condition of the twenty-something slacker dude. “Not so long ago,” she observes, “the average American man in his 20s had achieved most of the milestones of adulthood: a high-school diploma, financial independence, marriage and children. Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance.” This may make some sense, she acknowledges, for those who have gone to college (though she does not adequately explain why). “But it’s time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated women: It doesn’t bring out the best in men.”

What Hymowitz calls pre-adulthood is, as she argues, “a major demographic event,” which she compares with adolescence – a stage in life that did not exist for most Americans until the middle of the last century – when it became the norm for everyone to go to high school. The statistics are clear enough. There are colleges and universities in this country with something close to a one-to-one sex ratio (Hillsdale is one among them), but they are rare and highly selective. The overall ratio in the country is three-to-two – which helps explain why 34% of the women and only 27% of the men in the 25-to-34 age group have bachelor’s degrees.  The young women who do attend college have higher GPAs than the young men alongside them, and Hymowitz is right when she says that “most professors” see them as having “more confidence and drive.” Nationwide, women outnumber men in graduate school and in law school, and they earn more than their own brothers and the men they date. They get on with life, and young men don’t.

Hymowitz explains this development in part by pointing to the “knowledge economy” – to a decline in the number of jobs that we think of as typically male and to an increase in the premium paid college graduates apt to end up sitting behind a desk. She points as well to “our increasingly labyrinthine labor market.” As she puts it, “Fields that attract ambitious young men and women often require years of moving between school and internships, between internships and jobs, laterally and horizontally between jobs, and between cities in the U.S. and abroad. The knowledge economy gives the educated young an unprecedented opportunity to think about work in personal terms. They are looking not just for jobs but for ‘careers,’ work in which they can exercise their talents and express their deepest passions. They expect their careers to give shape to their identity. For today’s pre-adults, ‘what you do’ is almost synonymous with ‘who you are,’ and starting a family is seldom part of the picture.” As she puts it, “Husbands, wives, and children are a drag on the footloose life required for the early career track and identity search. It has delayed a stable sense of identity, dramatically expanded the pool of possible spouses, mystified courtship routines, and helped throw into doubt the very meaning of marriage.” One consequence is a delay of marriage.  Where, in 1970, only 16% of those 25 to 29 years old have never been married, today this is true for 55%.

Hymowitz’ main point, however, is that the entry of women into the career market has given rise to “cultural uncertainty about the social role of men.”

It’s been an almost universal rule of civilization that girls became women simply by reaching physical maturity, but boys had to pass a test. They needed to demonstrate courage, physical prowess or mastery of the necessary skills. The goal was to prove their competence as protectors and providers. Today, however, with women moving ahead in our advanced economy, husbands and fathers are now optional, and the qualities of character men once needed to play their roles—fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity—are obsolete, even a little embarrassing.

This point – and everything else that Hymowitz has to say on this subject – is well-taken. But I think that there is something that, at least in her article, she has omitted.

Some years ago, Christina Hoff Sommers published a volume entitled The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men, in which she explored the manner in which American schools – where women nearly always rule – denigrated manliness. This is, I suspect, one dimension of the problem. The qualities traditionally celebrated as signs of manliness — fortitude, stoicism, courage, and fidelity, among them – are mocked, while everything is done to encourage young women to spread their wings.

There is, I suspect, yet another reason for the emergence of the slacker dude, and that is the sexual revolution. Prior to, say, 1969, coitus not interruptus was for the man unmarried – especially for those put off by the thought of going to a brothel – in short supply, and young women colluded to keep it that way. What they wanted was marriage, a family, and stability – in short, Hymowtiz’ “protector and provider.” They were not much interested in young men reluctant to step up to the plate; and they were decidedly unfriendly and, in fact, downright nasty to other young women who broke the rules. George Bernard Shaw caught the drift of things in the world of yesteryear when he observed that marriage was an institution bound to last – given that it combined the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity.

In about 1969, as I well remember, everything changed, and footloose young men found that they could easily get for free from nice girls what they would hitherto have had to pay for in unsavory circumstances from girls not so nice. Young men are instinctively nomadic, and they enjoy chasing (and being chased and unchaste) – so this suited them just fine. In the circumstances, they found that it was outside marriage that they could most easily combine the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity, and they succumbed to the temptation. There were women who would feed them, do their laundry, and provide for their needs in, ahem, other ways.

When Hymowitz observes, “Relatively affluent, free of family responsibilities, and entertained by an array of media devoted to his every pleasure, the single young man can live in pig heaven – and often does,” she misses something that Mark Regnerus, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas and co-author of Premarital Sex in America catches when he observes, “When attractive women will still bed you, life for young men, even those who are floundering, just isn’t so bad.” There is, after all, at least one point on which Freud was more than half right: “Civilization is built on blocked, redirected, and channeled sexual impulse, because men will work for sex.” The real problem, as Regnerus points out, is that “today’s young men . . . seldom have to.”

In the end, however, this leaves both women and men unsatisfied. For no one really wants to be a pig, and members of both sexes possess longings that a passing roll in the hay will not do much of anything to quell. If Kay Hymowitz’ article in The Wall Street Journal adequately reflects her book, the latter will be at best a starting point for rumination on this subject – and not a sufficient source of enlightenment. But, on such a matter, it is certainly good to begin some serious thinking – for with regard to the relations between the two sexes we live in a world increasingly unhappy. Witness the fury aroused by even raising this subject.